State places Sound Community Services on 'immediate monitoring'

Sound Community Services has been placed under "immediate monitoring" by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which is investigating complaints about client care and fiscal management at the New London-based outpatient mental health services agency.

DMHAS made the announcement late Monday afternoon after a meeting earlier in the day between DMHAS Commissioner Patricia Rehmer and other department staff with Gail Lawson, executive director of Sound Community Services, K. Michael Talbot, the chairman of SCS' Board of Directors, and Diane Loomis-Setts, clinical director at the agency. Rehmer called for the meeting due to concerns about letters SCS sent in October and November to more than 400 clients telling them to seek care elsewhere because the agency did not have the staff to administer their psychiatric medications or write prescriptions for them.

"DMHAS is committed to providing high-quality care to our clients, both through our providers and through direct care," Rehmer said in the statement. "Beyond completing a fiscal audit, we have put immediate monitoring in place to ensure that Sound clients are in a safe environment and getting the care they need. The Department is conducting an investigation to determine the extent of the issues at Sound Community Services and what corrective action must be taken."

DMHAS has also told Sound Community Services to submit a corrective action plan by Monday "that will address the immediate issue around prescribing and dispensing medication. Upon review and approval, DMHAS will monitor Sound on a weekly basis to ensure compliance and appropriate care for clients."

Neither Lawson nor Talbot could be reached to comment Monday afternoon.

In the statement, DMHAS said that if its investigation determines that SCS cannot provide appropriate care for its clients, the state will take over its caseload by assigning it to the Southeastern Mental Health Authority, the Norwich-based division of the state department, and its provider network.

SCS, with offices in New London and Norwich, is the region's largest provider of outpatient mental health services for adults, with about 700 clients and an annual budget of about $10 million, supported mainly by state and federal funds.

Monday's statement is the strongest from DMHAS thus far about the extent of its concerns about SCS. The agency has been under state scrutiny at least since August, after 21 former employees sent a letter to SCS's Board of Directors about leadership and high turnover issues they said are undermining client care. DMHAS also began an audit of the agency after allegations were raised in email messages and an anonymous letter.

James Siemianowski, spokesman for DMHAS, said in a phone interview last week that the audit thus far had turned up findings that SCS staff were being overpaid from state grants. The finding could result in SCS having to repay funds to the state, he said.

The findings are being contested by SCS, he said.

In the letters this fall, more than 400 SCS clients were told to go to a primary care doctor or a hospital emergency room for psychiatric medication prescriptions, because of a severe shortage of staff able to prescribe and administer medications. State and regional mental health officials were highly critical of SCS for the way it handled the situation, including not alerting state officials to the problem and seeking the state's help before sending the letters.

j.benson@theday.com

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